Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Colonia Roma Norte Part I: Houses—and a Culture—That Survived a Revolution

As we have walked through the colonias west of the Centro Histórico inaugurated toward the end of the Porfiriato (1876-1911), we have become increasingly puzzled by an apparent contradiction; that is, much of the construction in these colonias occurred after the overthrow of Porfirio Díaz in 1911 and even after the conclusion of the Mexican Revolution, into the 1920's and 1930's.

Yet, curiously, they continued to adhere to the same conservative European aesthetic as during the Porfiriato. Evidently, the overthrow of Díaz did not mean the overthrow of his era's tastes or, by deduction, of the upper social class with the money to build in those styles. At least in these neighborhoods, the Mexican Revolution does not seem to have taken place.

In Roma Norte, the Porfirian colonia immedately to the south of Colonia Benito Juárez, we encounter grand houses that are very clear examples of this apparent contradiction. Their histories, literally written in stone, attest that the Revolution—to whatever extent it gave political voice and power to peasants and industrial workers—did not mean the overthrow of the wealthy or, at least, those based in Mexico City.

Entering Roma Norte from Avenida Chapúltepec on the north and walking down its north-south axis, Calle Orizaba, you come to the first manifestation of this anomaly at the corner with Calle Puebla, a mansion now called the Casa del Libro, the House of the Book, a culture center run by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). 

Casa del Libro
House of the Book,
cultural center of
National Autonomous University
of Mexico (UNAM)

Sepia stained glass window
at top of entrance hall stairs.

CLICK on any photo to enlarge it.
A galley of all photos will appear below it.

Glassed-domed entrance hall

The mansion was built in the early 1920's, after the Mexican Revolution, to be the home of Joaquín Baranda MacGregor and his wife, Dolores Luján Zuloaga, wealthy hacienda (large farm) owners, the very types from whom Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapate seized lands to return them to indigenous and meztizo peasants. The Constitution of 1917 spoke of government expropriation of such lands, but little of this occurred in the first governments after the Revolution. It wasn't until the mid-1930's that President Lázaro Cárdenas undertook major expropriations to give land to peasant farmers. Among these were the lands of Don Joaquín. 

Losing the foundation of its wealth, the Baranda MacGregor family left the house, renting it in 1940 to the Brazilian Embassy. In 1945, the Centro Asturiano de México, the Asturian Center of Mexico, purchased it. Asturias is an autonomous region on the northwest coast of Spain, next to Galicia or Gallego, but we'll get to that shortly. Obviously, a group with pure-blood Spanish identity that buys a mansion for its headquarters is not part of what, in Mexico, are called the "popular" classes. Evidently, members of the Asturian Center so prospered that, in 1985, they decided to build larger quarters and could afford to donate the house to the National University.

Leaving the Casa del Libro, we continue down Orizaba a short block to where the road divides to incorporate the Plaza Río de Janeiro, a tranquil, arbolado, tree-filled, park. At its center, stands a very large reproduction of Michelangelo's David. What more quintessential representation of classical European culture could there be?

"David" in Plaza Rio de Janeiro

As you stroll around the plaza and along adjacent streets, you find another of those early 20th century potpourris of Eruopean architectural styles we have seen in other colonias of this epoch:


Art Nouveau

French Second Empire 

Neo-colonial and Neo-classic home,


Centro Gallego, Galician Center of Mexico,
occupies Neo-classic mansion built in late 1930's

Returning to Orizaba and continuing south three short blocks, you reach the core of La Roma, Avenida Álvaro Obregón. Although it is now named after the Revolutionary general and president (1920-24), it is a wide, European-style boulevard, with a tree-lined, camellón, a walkway down the middle, studded with classic Greek statues—the very epitome of Porfiriato Neo-classic taste.

"Doryphoros", "Spear Bearer"
copy of statute by Policlitos, 5th Cent. BCE
The boys out for a stroll.
Discophoros, Disc Bearer
copy of statute by Policlitos, 5th Cent. BCE

At the corner of Orizaba and Obregón stand two large, quite palatial edifices:

The Balmoral (As in Queen of England!) Apartments

Casa Lamm

Casa Lamm, the Lamm House, embodies the history of Colonia Roma. In 1903, Porfirio Díaz gave the Calzada (Avenue) of Chapúltepec Company permission to subdivide the area of land known as Potrero de la Romita. The land was owned by the Lascurain family. 

Pedro Lascuráin, a lawyer, had formed the Calzada de Chapúltepec Company with a group of investors that included Cassius C. Lamm, an American engineer, and Edward Orrin, British owner of a circus that performed all over Mexico. Company and land were then divided in two. Lascuráin, Orrin and Porfirio Díaz Jr. (yes, the president's son), formed the Colonia Condesa Company. In partnership with Cassius Lamm and his sons, Óscar and Lewis, they formed the Colonia Roma Company. The streets in Roma were named after cities and states in Mexico where the Orrin Circus had performed.

Original plan for subdivisions of Colonias Condesa and Roma,
Avenue of the Centenary, now Insurgentes, 
runs north to south down the center. 
Roma now is to the right (east)
Condesa is to the left (west)

Pedro Lascuráin withdrew from active participation in the companies when he became mayor of Mexico City under Díaz and then Secretary of Foreign Affairs under President Madero, after Díaz was overthrown in 1911 (Mexican politicians are very flexible in their affiliations). When Victoriano Huerta overthrew Madero in February 1913, he had Secretary Lascurian convince Madero to resign. Under the Constitution, Lascurian became president; he then appointed Huerta next in line for the office and promptly resigned, all in less than one hour.

Lewis Lamm, an architect, designed the house at the corner of Orizaba and what was then Jalisco Street to be his family´s home. It was completed in 1911. With the turmoil of the ouster of Díaz and subsequent civil war, the family did not occupy the home. Instead, they rented it to the religious order of Marists who used it as boys' school. With the repression of Roman Catholic religious groups in the 1920's by the new post-Revolutionary government, Lamm took the house back. When he died in 1939, his widow sold it to another family, who owned it until 1990. It was then purchased by a not-for-profit group that restored it as the Casa Lamm Culture Center.

Entrance stairs to Casa Lamm
Inner courtyard

Casa Lamm, together with Casa del Libro and similar elaborate homes in Roma Norte and the other Porfirian colonias, bear witness that the Mexican Revolution was not such a complete revolution as its counterpart in Russia. The peasants and proletariat did not overthrow the capitalist bourgeoisie. The post-Revolutionary period was, instead, focused on finding a more or less stable equilibrium between these socio-economic classes. How that stuggle came to be represented in the landscape of Mexico City will be the subject of a later series of posts. 

However, before we move on to the new epoch, we will take strolls through other parts of Roma and through its neighbor, the last of the Porfirian colonias, Colonia Condesa and its little sisters.

Colonia Roma Norte is bounded on the
North by Ave. Chapúltepec
East by Ave. Cuauhtémoc
West by Ave. Insurgentes.
South by Calle Coahuila (not shown)

Delegación Cuauhtémoc
The "Porfirian" colonias line the west side of Delegación Cuauhtémoc
From north to south they are:
Santa Maria la Ribera (violet)
San Rafael (medium pink)
Cuauhtémoc, (medium blue triangle)

South of Paseo de la Reforma
Benito Juárez (horizontal triangle of three adjacent pink sections)
Roma Norte (light blue) (Doctores, to the east, is a separate colonia)
Roma Sur (darker blue)

And to the southwest (lower left):
Condesa (medium pink)
Condesa Hípódromo (dark pink)
Hípódromo (pale pink)

Centro, and its five sub-divisions (Historico, north, east, south, west)
 is to the right center (almost white)

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